Many thanks to Julian Bond for his guest blog and generous donation of Rodwell’s Qur’an to St Ethelburga’s.
‘Our God and Your God are One.’ (29.46)
John Rodwell has been very influential on my life and faith journey, though he is not well known outside particular circles. John Rodwell was a Vicar in the Church of England in the Victorian era. He is significant in that he was the Rector of St Ethelburga’s, a well known centre for reconciliation and peace, and a translator of the Qur’an.
I first encountered John Rodwell, or his translation of the Qur’an, in a dusty, almost Victorian bookshop on a grey Monday morning in Aberystwyth in the mid 1980s. After that this important book (to Muslims of course, but it was also the first decent English translation that was produced) sat ignored on my bookshelf for 15 years. But at the start of the current Christian millennium I was looking for something to read on my journey to work.
If you haven’t read the Qur’an then I encourage you to stop reading this article now! Locate a nearby copy if you can, or look it up online, ask a Muslim friend (or make one). Rodwell had the ‘useful’ idea of arranging the Qur’an’s non-sequential chapters chronologically. Thus his translation opens with these dramatic words:
In the name of God*, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Recite thou, in the Name of thy Lord who created
Created man from clots of blood.
For thy Lord is the most Beneficent
Who hath taught the use of the pen.
Hath taught man that which he knoweth not …
* or ‘Allah’ if you prefer
The footnotes told me that this was the Archangel Gabriel speaking with God’s Words to the Prophet Muhammad, in a dark cave while he was on retreat, a solitary, pious, monotheistic character who had gone some distance from his city and his people. It all sounds rather familiar, very much in the Biblical prophetic tradition.
And so I read on. Like many other translations, including later ones, it was in King James Bible style (archaic even in 1611), creating language and literary resonances alongside familiar Biblical stories and characters. This double-edged feature, both draws in and distances, an unhelpful barrier for some, but having read the King James Bible not a challenge for me.
You could say that I was hooked, it didn’t take too long to read it. I even took it to church with me on one occasion, reading portions before the service started. Amongst a whole range of interesting features was a strong focus on God’s judgement, one of the least favourite characteristics of my own Scripture, which I am more than happy to put to one side. But what I didn’t realise then was how important this reading was, because it took me on a journey of encounter with Islam and eventually with St Ethelburga’s and its memory of Rodwell.
I explored more about Islam and was therefore, unexpectedly, primed for an invitation to be seconded from HMRC to the Archbishop’s Christian-Muslim Initiative in 2002. Rodwell, or the Qur’an, had taken me from mid-Wales to Lambeth Palace. My involvement in Christian-Muslim relations introduced me to the inter faith movement where I met many key activists, including the first Director of St Ethelburga’s.
At that time St Ethelburga’s was recovering from being one of the main casualties of an IRA bomb aimed at a nearby bank. Most of the church was destroyed. The restoration involved preserving and marking the history and legacy of St Ethelburga’s and its surprising contribution to peace and reconciliation, even long ago. St Ethelburga herself is a patron saint of peace. John Rodwell also fitted into the retelling of the St Ethelburga’s story as a place of peace and reconciliation. If you go into the nave you will see a new plaque which is part of the building’s restoration, commemorating Rodwell as translator of the ‘first reliable version of the Qur’an in English’ in 1861. It also quotes these great words from his translation, (29.46)
I am giving a copy of Rodwell’s translation to St Ethelburga’s; if anywhere should have a copy then St Ethelburga’s should.
Former director of the Christian Muslim Forum and St Ethelburga’s volunteer
Many thanks go to Julian for his generous donation and blog, written on the day of our first overnight Peace Vigil at St Ethelburga’s.